Sunday, January 17, 2010

A wake-up call

If there was a time this weekend for the Canadiens to show just what they were made of, just how well this completely re-built team had come together, and just how serious it is about competing for a playoff spot in season #101.

Well, after putting up a doughnut in two games against their closest playoff rivals, and getting outscored 10-4 in the process, it might be time to come to a painful realization: maybe, just maybe, the Habs aren't really all that good.

There, I said it.

Of course, that's a natural reaction following two heartless losses against two very beatable teams, and just like I try not to map out the Habs parade route after a few wins in a row, it would probably be a good idea to take a step back before making any sweeping determinations about them now.

But, and there is a major but here, the Habs have run out of excuses.

While Andrei Markov was out of the lineup, it was easy to keep expectations low because there were so many reasons to do just that.

When he returned, the Habs were 15-18-3, and after Sunday's 6-2 embarrassment in New York they are now 23-23-4. While an 8-5-1 record with Markov in the lineup looks pretty good on paper, it's a very deceiving mark. The first four of those wins came against the Islanders, Thrashers, Hurricanes and Leafs. Two of those teams could make the playoffs, the other two are among the worst in the league. The shot totals in those games left the Habs on the short end of a 186-96, and while Markov was tremendous it was Jaroslav Halak who was almost solely responsible for those victories.

In the last 10 games Montreal is 4-5-1, even though Markov is back, even Brian Gionta is back, even though Scott Gomez began producing like he's expected to, even though Benoit Pouliot finally arrived and gave the team an offensive jolt. The four wins came against teams who are currently not in playoff position, the six losses against teams who are. In that span the Habs showed some signs of life, such as the solid effort against New Jersey, but nothing that appeared sustainable.

So while the city has been embroiled in the debate between Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price, the fact is the Canadiens appear to be little more than a playoff bubble team, even when rolling nearly at full strength.

Obviously, no one was expecting the Habs to make a run for the Cup this year, but once you get in the playoffs you're supposed to believe anything is possible. Does anyone believe that about this team? Does anyone feel they could take out a New Jersey or a Washington or even a Buffalo in the first round of the playoffs?

Why am I asking this? Because at some point, and that point will come relatively soon, Bob Gainey will be faced with a decision on whether or not to try and acquire some help for the team or whether he should sell off some parts at the trade deadline. Tonight was Montreal's 50th game, and it came two weeks earlier than the 50-game mark last season. So while the trade deadline is still six weeks away, some serious evaluation of this team's chances to succeed needs to be made now.

When Gainey didn't budge at last year's deadline, it was a clear indication that he didn't believe in the team's chances of winning. Yes, he had acquired Mathieu Schneider earlier, but I think what Gainey did last summer spoke volumes about his level of belief in old personnel. So how does he feel about the group he has now? Will he be more willing to acquire some help for Jacques Martin since practically the entire team is now made up of players he chose to bring in?

Right now, after watching the last two games, I can't believe Gainey is very impressed. It's one thing to lose to a team that is clearly better than you, and those losses can even be encouraging if your team shows some heart and competes.

It's another thing entirely when you are facing two teams you are in direct competition with for a playoff spot in back-to-back games, and you completely lay down for both.


LeMatheux said...


I think the biggest problem is coaching. There's a depth issue at forward, sure, but the Habs do have the talent to do considerably better than what we've seen. But they simply do not look like a well-coached team.

They're lousy in the first periods, they're undisciplined, they're arguably the worst 5-on-5 team in the league (26th on goals ratio and getting worse)... the transition game is in shambles despite the Habs having more puck-moving talent than the average, there are formerly strong 5-on-5 puck posession guys on this roster (Gomez) that are losing their touch as the system takes hold more and more. The metrics are lousy and getting worse as Martin implements his ineffective system. I'm not asking for the moon. If the Habs did so little as 'break even' at 5-on-5, they would be a very good team because of special teams excellence. But they're not. I wonder if at some point soon the players aren't just going to start tuning him out.

Martin promised a puck possession system but his system is anything but. Judging from his recorded comments, it's pretty clear to me that 'puck possession' is just a fashionable buzzword for him, devoid of any substance.

It sounds nice and noble to 'realize' that they are just not very good, but that's just not true. They are perhaps the best special teams club in the league, the reason they don't win more games is that they play like a lottery team at even-strength -- 27th for 5-on-5 goals ratio, barely above Carolina... and losing ground! If the goaltending hadn't been excellent, they *would* be the worst 5-on-5 team in the game if they aren't currently. They'd probably be comfortably in a lottery spot in the standings, too.

Look over the roster -- it's not perfect, we may have been too hopeful on it, but seriously, is this the worst roster in the league? Allow me to suggest it's at least a little better than that!

pfhabs said...


-it's not 2 games it's 50+ and they are what they are-- a bubble team at best and unhappily for many they were a bubble team in July when Gainey put out version #2of his grand plan

-if they make the playoffs, which is questionable as they have a real chance at 13th in the east, they will be nothing but road kill. sure anything can happen but rationale people and hockey teams should not expect miracles at the end of the year

-my hope is that as the inevitable becomes more obvious to the herd Mr Molson takes any form of reconstruction, tweeking, movement of any kind out of the hands of Gainey & Gauthier. they did what they could over the past 6+ years and rather than chance a major mistake disguised as a bold move at the deadline bring in smarter and more precise new blood

-I know what will follow from many but those individuals should look in the mirror of the CH and see that you have the same thing after 50 games as you did after 30 or 20. it's too bad but time to move on not sideways for a 7th year

Arjun said...

The Habs are a lower tier team. The question is, with the players they have, can they become a better team? Can they develop depth up front? Can they develop a "system" that doesn't result in their d-men holding 3 of the top 5 spots in the give-away category? With the contracts they have, they are hamstrung in many ways. But being mediocre seems to be what they do best right now. Oh, and celebrating the past. They are the champions of that. Was in the Habs HoF yesterday. And I realized that this centennial thing was the biggest Boomer-fueled marketing fest in a long time. The Habs have done nothing for post Boomer/post (older) Gen X folk (like myself) to justify passion. Except for the love of the game. The history is all just camouflage. That's what it's become. We aren't the Cubs or the Leafs, not by a long shot. But a few more years of this and we will be.

LeMatheux said...

Side note on a serious pet peeve of mine:

No, the Habs will not be able to not have 3 D-men that are top-5 in the league on giveaways. The main reason those guys have so many giveaways is literally because they are Habs.

Giveaway scoring varies wildly from rink to rink, and it just so happens that they hand out way more giveaways at the Bell Centre than the majority of other rinks. Just have a look on at the total team stats for giveaway and compare the Habs' home and road giveaways. Their home total is over double, and it's not that they take THAT much better care of the puck on the road.

The Habs' players giveaway stats are likely inflated by over 50%. This is why they find themselves so high in the list.

Then you have the question of whether a high giveaway stat is indicative of a real problem in the first place, or just a tendency to pass the puck more than average.

Arpon Basu said...

The giveaway stat is a pet peeve of mine as well. You know which players have a lot of giveaways? The ones who have the puck the most often. If they don't score or complete a pass, it's a giveaway. You'll never see a dump-and-chase third-liner among the giveaway leaders because he doesn't take chances with the puck. I don't think the Pens will bench Sidney Crosby just because he leads the NHL's forwards in giveaways.

Still, the point is a fair one. The Habs have far too much trouble stringing a few passes together coming out of their zone. A hallmark of Martin's system is supposed to be a low-risk, efficient breakout. But more often than not players are desperately trying to simply clear the zone, only to have the opposing defenceman gather the puck in the neutral zone and send it right back in. Statistically, that's a giveaway. In real terms, it's a great gauge for panicky play. And if there was one thing Martin's teams were known for, it was their ability to calmly apply the game plan. This team does anything but.

john deere said...

Isn't that also a lack of speed on the defense? The ability to break contain and head up the ice on a three on two. In football, if you have a quarterback with a weak arm or slow receivers the defense can really crowd and pressure your guys.

What is the status of Kirk Muller? Are they grooming him to be a head coach or is he a career assistant coach?

Ahh, the dog days of the schedule. I used to work outside doing manual labour and there was always a spell in the summer when you had to grit your teeth and work your way through it.

LeMatheux said...


There seems to be a lot of things that we were promised regarding Martin that haven't been delivered. Puck possession system? Puck poise? Efficient breakout? Strong defensive game? Good with young players? All part of Martin's reputation, but I haven't seen any of that and on most if not all of those points the results are actually pretty dismal -- too often, we got the exact opposite of what the reputation promised.

I laid out my feelings above already. Am I too early at being sorely disappointed with the coach, and if so, at which point should I expect to see some positive impact?

Arpon Basu said...

I think you have every right to be disappointed with Martin, though in his defence I would say he's only had two games all year where he's benefited from a full lineup, at least in terms of the key players. His system, at least right now, looks to be either ill-suited to his personnel or simply not trusted by his players. However, having said that, I think it's too early to be calling for a new coach. He deserves more of a chance, at least a season for sure, and probably two seasons in my books. This man is a good coach, he's just not doing a good job. But that could change.

MathMan said...

Let's hope so, because good or not, I don't see the Habs firing Martin this season and most of next because of the big contract he was awarded in the off-season. Sigh, I was a big believer in that hire when it happened but these days I'm seeing it as a mistake, which would only be compounded if Lemaire really was available.

And you're right, the most frustrating part is that he's shown he can coach in several areas. The special teams are great, the bench management is good (that was a particular weakness of Carbo, incidentally), often he has the team executing his poor system like clockworks. It makes his failings all the more frustrating, because they make what he does well go to waste.

Let's see if the old dog can change his stripes, but I have my doubts.

john deere said...

Sykora has been waived by Minnesota. Would he be a good fit with Plekanec or would he be more trouble than he is worth?

Tom said...

I agree with pfhabs. Gainey's got to go. He's made brutal decisions over the past six years, and this team is honestly no better than when he took over.

I even blogged about it in December:

The team just doesn't match up well. The Habs had one good year under Gainey, and that was it. I don't know how he still has a job.

MathMan said...

No better?

Have a look at the rosters when Gainey took over and now, and compare them player-for-player. I don't know how you can say with a straight face that the roster is "no better".

And the farm team wasn't this strong either.

Gainey started more or less with this:

Just look at the top scorers. The top three forwards were Saku Koivu, Richard Zednik, and Yanick Perreault. All due respect to these guys, especially Koivu, but we're a long way from Gomez-Cammalleri-Gionta, here.

It's one thing to say he could have done better, it's quite another to say he didn't improve the team.

Tom said...

I stand by my statement. When Gainey took over, this was a team that was floundering to make the playoffs, had a goalie controversy, had no secondary scoring most nights, and played inconsistent.

So where has this team improved?

Look at the farm team now. Who do we have that can turn this team around? PK Subban, and that's about it.

Comparing rosters, you have to look at the whole thing to get a good sense of the similarities. It's more than just the top three guys. Is Price (or Halak) an upgrade over Vezina and Hart-winning Theodore? Is Laraque an upgrade over McKay? Is O'Byrne and Georges (two promising defencemen) an upgrade over Komisarek and Beauchemin? Is Sergei Kostitsyn an upgrade over Mike Riberio? And really, is Scott Gomez (the man with an $8-million cap hit and six goals), honestly an upgrade over Richard Zednik?

I would argue none of them are upgrades from where we were six years ago. The names have changed, but that's about it.

LeMatheux said...

The whole "goalie controversy" thing makes me laugh. Price has a save percentage of .915, and if Halak's is better it's because the Slovakian has been extraordinary, not because the Canadian has been bad. From some comments you hear or read, you'd think Price was some sort of disaster, not sitting 16th in save percentage. It's a matter between picking "very good" and "a bit better". There are teams that would kill to have this kind of a "goalie controversy".

(Then again, a lot of the anti-Price sentiment is really manufactured to drive anti-Gainey sentiment. There needs to be a bit more rationality in this debate.)

The top end of the forward roster is better. The defense is better man-for-man. The goaltending is excellent. Both teams had depth issues, but the Habs' depth is in no small part underperforming kids, not washed-out veterans.

Gainey's put together a pretty good roster. It's not perfect, it's poorly used, it's not really cohesive, but the roster is clearly better than when Gainey took over. To say it's not is... well, words fail me. But then again, the rabid anti-Gainey folk complain about things like the Habs' overall drafting (demonstrably one of the most productive in the NHL), the number of Habs draftees on the roster (again one of the highest in the NHL), not trading UFAs then trading Huet away, not making a trade deadline deal last year (by which they mean Schneider was traded for too early to count)... the general anti-Gainey sentiment has never been terribly rational.

That's unfortunate because Gainey *has* made a number of mistakes, but they're never analyzed with the requisite detachment and the overall big picture is never actually considered, so they get lost in all the screaming.

john deere said...

I think Gainey has done a decent job and I'm not his biggest fan by any stretch of the imagination. If the ownership group wants to develop the team in a new direction then that is their decision to replace Gainey.

If a GM blows a team up gets a dozen first and second round draft picks and builds up a team is that an enormous accomplishment? How good would Pittsburg and Washington be without their top picks? Is New Jersey a successful franchise? Or New York Rangers or Islanders? Toronto?

I remember how bad Chicago, Boston and Detroit were for decades so lets not bring those teams into the discussion.

To me the Habs are in a very good position going forward. In the off season if they trade or draft for one or two top 4 defenseman that will leave the team with some secondary and third and fourth line players to get over the next 5 years. Easy as pie.

Tom said...

Habs overall drafting: "demonstrably one of the most productive in the NHL"

Seriously? We draft guys like Andrei Kostitsyn (10th pick overall) instead of Jeff Carter (11th pick), Zach Parise (17th), Ryan Getzlaf (19th), Brent Burns (20th), Mike Richards (24th) and Corey Perry (28th).

Or Kyle Chipchura (18th) instead of Travis Zajac (20th), Wojtek Wolski (21st) or Mike Green (29th)

Look at players Gainey has drafted that is playing: Max Pacioretty, Andrei Kostitsyn, Sergei Kostitsyn, Maxim Lapierre, Jaroslav Halak, Matt D’Agostini, Ryan White, and Ryan O’Byrne.

Except for Halak, there’s no player on that list that make other teams worried, or other teams would love to have.

As for the question from someone else: "Is New Jersey a successful franchise?" Since they've won a cup in the past 10 years, I'll say yes. And Detroit hasn't missed a postseason in 20 years, so you can't say all their success was from finishing at the bottom of the standings.

john deere said...

I wouldn't want to spend 10 years watching New Jersey play hockey so it doesn't matter if they win a cup or not (It's like a tree falling in the forest. Who cares?).

Maybe you should look at success rates and the odds of successful draft picking rather than cherry picking your results.

If you don't like Gainey, you don't like Gainey and maybe we should just leave it at that.

MathMan said...

Yes, seriously. Drafting is an inexact science and drafts are generally evaluated on batting average and the Habs have done very well there.

There's nothing easier than going back after a draft and re-doing it and picking out the guys you could have drafted instead. The exercise is also completely pointless. You could make practically any team look bad that way.

Arpon Basu said...

I am really getting sick of people using the Kostitsyn selection as an example of poor drafting. If the Habs hadn't taken him at No. 10, I'm pretty sure the Flyers would have taken him at No. 11 instead of Carter. At the time, he was seen as a top-five talent, but teams were scared off by his epileptic condition. Getting him at No. 10 was a coup. If the Canadiens consistently struck out in the first round, as they did under Rejean Houle, then you could say the drafting under Gainey/Timmins has been poor. But this duo has made 55 draft picks until now, and already 18 of them have played a game in the NHL. No, none of them are superstars, but that is a very, very good draft record. How good? The team that is commonly referred to as the most astute on draft day, Detroit, has only selected seven players over that same span who have played a game in the NHL.
Gainey is open to criticism on many, many things. But drafting is definitely not one of them.

pfhabs said...


"That's unfortunate because Gainey *has* made a number of mistakes, but they're never analyzed with the requisite detachment and the overall big picture is never actually considered, so they get lost in all the screaming."

-the problem with the collective herd of Gainey sycophants and apologists is that they forget history and like all revisionists hope it didn't exist.

-the big pictute my friend is the following

A) Accomplishments

1. rebuilt AHL team including excellent coaches

2. 3rd best crop of prospects as judged by Hockey News via survey of rest of NHL scouting departments

3. Kovalev for Balej

4. Gorges & Pacioretty for Rivest

5. dumping of Theodore contract although originally signed him to it

6. acqusition of Cammelleri, Moen & Gionta (although a crazy big contract amount)

-that's the best I see. may have forgetten some but await to be told what they might be

B) Failures

-will not go thru the indicators of poor performance on the part of Gainey as most know what they are. for me they are measured in bad trades, questionable acquisitions, not moving declining players and lost assets for no compensation. however, the most significant indicator being playoff apperances and length of stay.

-I will say that they, not counting this season which is iffy at best, missed the playoffs once out of 5 years and their record in the other 4 years is 11-22 having won two 1st round series and lost 2

-to me that is not a measure of excellence. it is average/mediocre at best and after 6+ years, including the current in which I see them missing the playoffs or first round exit, I want a change of GM.

-for me as much as I admired Bob the player/captain and thought he was the saviour hired in June 2003 it hasn't worked out. pointe finale it's time to move forward with another regime

-no screaming, no micro view just the facts...